Written by: Colleen Gerson
Health & Activism
Beyond implementing all possible ways to avoid this virus and care for those who are sick, can we also use this time wisely to reflect and tend to the body of our health in life-nourishing ways, even through degrees of isolation?
Collectively, we’re all feeling the confusion and overwhelm in these challenging times, as we navigate moment-to-moment updates and plan how to prepare, as well as lessen the spread of disease to support ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Some of us are battling illness or losing our jobs and income; some are still working in the field, to aid people’s health and provide for other vital needs. Meanwhile, it has become very clear that we are all in this together — not only in this experience, but connected across the globe in a living ecosystem and interdependent economy.
While scientists work brilliantly and swiftly to identify and manufacture pharmaceutical approaches to defeating the virus (which may be essential, as well as have side effects), we can each be proactive towards our individual and collective health by:
- Following guidelines and intel from the CDC and the WHO
- Staying home to “flatten the curve” (unless providing front-line healthcare support or essential work)
- Incorporating foods and practices to cultivate immunity and resilience
Profiting on a Pandemic
There’s a lot of information as well as misinformation circulating, and unfortunately much of it even feels like profiteering during a challenging time — whether promoting herbs, supplements, or un-tested pharmaceuticals.
We’re not going to try selling you on CBD products when there’s so much more that needs to be understood about this new virus. Quite frankly, the research isn’t there yet regarding which herbs or modalities might work to specifically prevent or treat Covid-19. There are numerous debates and caveats regarding how some herbs might interact with the body’s immune response, particularly with regard to a potential over-reaction via cytokine storm, so all approaches, pharmaceutical and holistic, need further study.
Because of this, we’ve been careful to pull from our most knowledgeable and trusted experts within Integrative & Functional Medicine as well as infectious disease communities, to share the most well-rounded and grounded approach we could collect at this time.
This should never take the place of medical advice from your trusted physician, and we urge you to trust your intuition and the innate wisdom of your body as well.
Here are key foundational methods for supporting a healthy immune system and your overall well-being.
With our personal incomes and supply lines currently impacted, food variety and access is more challenging. Yet in whatever ways are available to you, good food is foundational to a healthy immune system.
In times of stress, we can forget to eat well, craving sweets or comfort foods, or having no desire to eat at all. But sugar, processed carbs, and alcohol suppress immune system function. Instead of falling into the trap of “eating our feelings,” remember that our mood and health is best supported by nutritious foods from the earth. These foods help nourish all body systems, providing vital nutrients for both your immune system and energy levels.
Research has shown that brightly-colored vegetables and fruits may boost immunity better than most supplements, so even if you can’t find or afford any fancy supplements, food is really our best and most available medicine. Adequate protein and good fats, as well as bitter greens like cruciferous veggies are essential for immune function and eliminating toxic agents. If animal or seafood protein isn’t desired or available to you, lentils, rice, and veggies are a great alternative that can be found in bulk and prepared in a variety of ways for balanced, nutritiously-dense, budget-friendly meals.
Simple, yet often forgotten, adequate hydration is necessary for immune function. A study showed that dehydration decreased antimicrobial proteins in saliva that are one of the body’s first defenses against invading pathogens.
- Drink plenty of water
- Minimize processed or sugar-laden food/drink
- Eat a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits where possible (frozen or dried are fine), don’t forget the bitter greens, and quality protein & healthy fats, all as straight from the earth and minimally processed as possible.
Acute and chronic stress suppress immune system function, making you more likely to get sick...or stay sick.
Put boundaries on your news and media consumption and prioritize your stress-reduction practices daily, now more than ever. Find your personal mood-medicine. This could be any number of practices:
- guided meditation
- deep breaths or guided breathwork
- hot baths
- sexual intimacy
- time in nature
- reading a novel
- virtual dance or workout classes
So many wonderful people are offering free videos and live classes online right now to support the collective through this time. Experiment, find something new and fun that soothes your stress daily. (We’ll dive deeper into support for the nervous system in our next blog.)
Plants are ancient healers who have helped us to thrive and adapt in our lives and environment since the dawn of time.
Many plants are adaptogenic and even potent nervines, meaning they not only help our body and mind adapt and regulate, but also help to calm and nourish our nervous system — helping all body systems including the immune system. Kava kava, lemon balm, oat straw, lavender, and chamomile are some of our favorite plants and easily-accessible stress busters. Daily adaptogen supports like rhodiola, tulsi, or reishi can help build deeper wells of resilience, if you have access.
Cannabis is continually being studied to further understand its immune effects, supporting people across the spectrum of autoimmune conditions to cancer, with seemingly immunomodulating properties. Because constituents in this plant can be immune boosting or immune suppressing, depending on the expression of dis-ease or imbalance in the body, we don’t know enough yet about its impact in relation to Covid-19.
Moderate, regular physical activity helps to boost immune system function by raising levels of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies, increasing circulation and oxygenation of the blood, aiding elimination of toxins and pathogens, decreasing stress hormones and improving sleep.
If you’re spending more time at home these days — likely sitting more and feeling increased stress — it’s extremely helpful to gently exercise your body and move that energy through and out. Get your body moving every day in some way, get your heart rate up and blood pumping — bonus points if it includes getting into nature.
Sex & Sleep
Studies have shows that sex and masturbation boost the immune system, and we all know that sleep greatly influences our body’s ability to heal, fight off disease and be healthy.
Yet many of us are having a harder time sleeping these days, so we may need to weave in some tricks. Turn off news and all screens at least an hour or two before bed (the blue light can also keep you awake). Maybe set a daily reminder to unplug, and then use this time before bed to relax by reading or writing, doing a sleep meditation, or getting intimate with yourself. Dim the lights to signal the transition and melatonin production, and ensure the room is cool, quiet, and dark, and get to bed on time for 7-8 hours of sleep.
Health Boosting Herbs & Practices
Here are some additional things we can do to really boost a healthy immune system & recovery. Don’t stress if you can’t access these at the moment; the foundational methods above are the most important.
Keep in mind, these aren’t meant to take the place of proper medical advice from your primary care physician, and if you do develop symptoms, call your doctor and arrange a phone consultation or other remote check-in. If you’ve lost your health insurance, many urgent care clinics have telemedicine options, some offered on a sliding scale.
Supplements: Buffered Vitamin C, Vitamin D3 with K2, and Zinc are all essential nutrients for a healthy, balanced immune system. Not only has it been shown to decrease the duration of cold and flu, and fight infections, but additionally well-controlled studies underway demonstrate it could help prevent and treat pneumonia and lessen the need of ventilator support. So having these on hand preventatively doesn’t hurt, especially if immunocompromised. You can also increase your citrus, eat oysters or lentils, and bask in the sunshine to help meet these needs if unavailable in supplement form.
Gut goods: At least 70% of our immune system lies in the gut, so feeding our gut microbiota daily with raw fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, miso), a robust probiotic supplement, as well as bone broth or a veggie-seaweed-mushroom broth supports our defense system.
Safe Immune-Supportive and Antiviral Plant Allies: There are a lot of claims out there made by different companies and individuals, but after reviewing advice from researchers and physicians on the front-lines, the following are the most consistently suggested and safe, as well as most accessible. Garlic, ginger, cordyceps, and green tea is shown particularly antiinflammatory and supportive for the respiratory and immune system. See Dr. Aviva’s video on how to make ginger juice!
Respiratory steams, teas, and salt gargles:
Herbs like peppermint, sage, rosemary, and thyme are easy to find, aromatic plants rich in volatile oils.These are great to use in cooking, in a tea with raw honey, or even as an herbal steam at the first sign of congestion, constriction, or mucus. For respiratory congestion, a humidifier, respiratory steam, or neti pot with warm water and a little salt can help open up the nasal passageways, thin mucus, and soothe irritated mucous membranes. Salt water gargles help to thin mucus and clear out bacterial infections. Lozenges containing zinc or slippery elm as an excellent demulcent (to relieve minor pain and inflammation of mucous membranes) for soothing irritated sore throats, as well as raw honey in teas like chamomile, peppermint, or licorice root.
If you’d like to go further, our friend and trusted expert Dr. Aviva Romm has been collecting a beautiful list of resources for Covid-19, geared to an Integrative perspective. She’s an incredible resource especially for mothers, pregnant people, or those with autoimmune conditions. Additionally Parsley Health offers Functional Medicine telehealth with their physicians and health coaches, and are also putting out some great content. We’ve included further resources at the end of this post.
Most of all, remember to breathe deep and nourish your body and mind through this time. When we feel strong and resourced, we are more effective and better able to tend to others. When you feel taken off track or overwhelmed go back to the basics and get some rest, stay hydrated, tend to your body, and support each other; and we’ll move through this together - stronger and more resilient than before.
We hope this helps clarify and support you through this time. Please reach out and let us know how else we can support you, we absolutely love hearing from our community! Stay tuned for ways to tend to our nervous system.
Sources & Resources:
- An Integrative Approach to Covid-19 with Dr. Aviva Romm
- Boosting Immunity, by The Institute for Functional Medicine
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging Resistant & Epidemic Viral Infections. Storey Publishing, 2013.
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Herbal Treatment for Coronavirus Infections. 2020
- Cannabis & the Immune System: A Complex Balancing Act
- Centers for Disease Control for Covid 19
- Covid-19 Coronavirus Resources, NAIMH North American Institute of Medical Herbalism
- Herbal Medicines and Cytokine Storm in Respiratory Infection by Paul Bergner. North American Institute of Herbal Medicine.
- Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center
- Report from the Front Line in Wuhan
- Parsley Health for Functional Medicine telehealth with physicians and health coaches, membership practice
- The Truth about Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
* This blog is only intended to identify modalities that may support your immune system. It is not meant to recommend any treatments, nor have any of these modalities been proven effective against coronavirus. Always consult your physician or healthcare provider prior to using any of these modalities. For up-to-date information on COVID-19, please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.